How to Make a Natural Shower Gel using Surfactants

2020-11 natural shower gel

If you haven’t worked with green surfactants before, this jewel-coloured, organic natural shower gel formula will persuade you to give these foundation ingredients a try. Even though shower gels are rinse-off products, we generally use them daily – and sometimes twice daily – so over time our skin will come into considerable contact with the ingredients in them.  At Formula Botanica, we believe plant-derived surfactants – the cleansing and foaming agents that you find in most gel and liquid bath, shower and soap products – are gentler, less harsh cleansers and more tolerated by our skin’s epidermal barrier.

Plus, the natural shower gel formula in this post is an interesting challenge if you are new to working with natural surfactants. It has a gorgeous ocean blue colour from spirulina and a zesty grapefuit scent which make for the perfect morning wake-up shower ritual. But you have plenty of scope to use your imagination and formulating experience to swap out colours and scents. Our foundation formula is a good place to start learning which surfactants to choose to get the optimal amount of foaming and cleansing qualities you desire in a finished product.

What makes a good natural shower gel?

Surfactants, or surface-active agents, are a vast group of cosmetic ingredients that includes emulsifiers and solubilisers. We cover an introduction to the science of surfactants in our post 5 natural surfactants for use in organic cosmetics.

Not all surfactants foam, as you will know if you have used certain natural emulsifiers in your formulations. In fact, you don’t need a cleansing product to foam in order for it to perform; for example, think of cream-based bath or shower cleansers, which have a completely different look and feel. However most consumers expect gel cleansers to foam as they associate the lather with that feeling of being fresh and clean.

In this post, we show you how to work with three natural surfactants to make a high-performance, natural shower gel with a gorgeous colour and uplifting ‘morning zing’ citrus scent. This formula is designed to foam but thanks to its natural surfactants, it won’t leave a dry, tight feeling which can occur when the skin is stripped of too much moisture.

Our Base Formula for a Natural Organic Shower Gel

A base formula for a shower gel needs to contain water and/or botanical hydrosols, surfactants to cleanse the skin, a preservative to protect against microbes and a thickener to increase the viscosity of the product. These ingredients, in precise ratios, create the foundation of a great shower gel that produces a good foam and cleanses well.

One of the trickiest parts of creating this kind of formulation is thickening the blend to the desired and expected gel-like viscosity. We also need to ensure our finished product doesn’t end up with excessive amounts of bubbles trapped in the gel itself or with a clumpy texture.

Using a shower gel that is the consistency of water is challenging and wasteful and doesn’t class as a gel; which is why we need to thicken our formula. When you are working with sulphates as your surfactant, it is much easier to get the correct viscosity as adding in a salt helps thicken sulphate-based formulations to give them that familiar gel consistency.

Choosing and Using Gums

When you are using natural surfactants, you will need a gum or a blend of gums, rather than a salt, in order to achieve the right viscosity. Gums can be difficult to work with. They can clump and create some very strange textures if you don’t get the formulation right.

After trialing quite a few different combinations of gums for this shower gel, we settled on a 50:50 combination of a product called Amigel (INCI – Sclerotium gum) and clear Xanthan gum. This combination creates a lovely, clear gel with a soft texture (as long as they are fully hydrated) that has great stability. You could also use Xanthan and Guar gum instead, but these may need different percentages. You have to play around to see what combination of gums works for you in your formulation.

Working with Natural Surfactants

The next task is creating your blend of surfactants; these work best when used in combination and have different ‘charges’ to create a synergistic blend and optimise its overall performance. Using only one, non-ionic surfactant is completely possible in shower gels and a great place to start, but we suggest that once you are more confident it is better to use a blend of surfactants to create a well-rounded product.

If you want a product with stronger cleansing abilities you should include an anionic surfactant. Adding amphoteric surfactants (that carry both a positive and negative charge) increases the foam stability while using non-ionic surfactants will create a gentler product and soften any stronger surfactants.

For this organic shower gel we are using a combination of two non-ionic surfactants called Caprylyl/Capryl glucoside and Decyl glucoside along with Cocamidopropyl betaine which is an amphoteric surfactant. This creates a mild blend with great lather. Caprylyl/Capryl glucoside is also an effective solubilising agent so this will help our oil-based ingredients disperse within our gel.

Botanical additives for our base shower gel formula

Once you have cracked your perfect base formulation, you can then customise it with different plant-based botanicals to create different scents, colours and sensations. You will most likely want to include some botanical extracts and a small amount of some essential oils for a lovely scent.

You have many options such as glycerites, water-based extracts, herbal infusions or even very small amounts of oil-based extracts (any more than a very small amount would require the addition of a solubiliser).

However, as this is a rinse off product and will not be in contact with the skin for very long, it is not necessary to add lots of expensive extracts as they will not have the time to work their magic. Shower gels are the kind of formulation where the KISS principle really applies.

It is better to focus on optimising the product’s performance, which in this case means the surfactant phase, rather than using lots of fancy botanicals. It would be a shame to wash your expensive extracts down the drain. Save them instead for a body yoghurt, lotion or a formula like this neroli and tuberose body butter, to apply after a shower.

Adding Natural Colour to your Shower Gel

Shower gels are also a fun product to add colour to and there are many ways you can do this. To make this product as natural as possible, we have used powdered blue spirulina not only as one of our botanical extracts but also to simply impart a wonderful, vibrant colour to the product. There are many other powdered extracts you can use in your natural shower gel such as charcoal for unusual black gel, beetroot for a vibrant red, butterfly pea for a deep blue/purple and so on. Bear in mind that different extracts will have different optimal percentages, solubility, stability and may add extra challenges relating to preservation. Also, be aware of how the colour additive washes off. Does the colour perform as a consumer would expect it to and rinse off cleanly?

Formulate this @FormulaBotanica ocean-blue spirulina & citrus organic shower gel to learn all about green surfactants. #surfactants #greenbeauty #naturalformulation Click To Tweet

How to make a natural organic shower gel

Our Formulation: Spirulina & Grapefruit Natural Organic Shower Gel

Now that you’re ready to make your own natural shower gel, gather together the following ingredients from your formulation stash (or order them from the suggested suppliers listed at the bottom of this blog post):

Phase Ingredients Weight (grams)
A Vegetable glycerine 10.00
A Sclerotium Gum 1.00
A Xanthan Gum, Clear 1.00
B Caprylyl/Capryl Glucoside 15.00
B Cocamidopropyl Betaine


B Decyl Glucoside 3.00
B Grapefruit essential oil 1.00
C Distilled water 42.90
C Orange hydrosol 10.00
C Aloe vera hydrosol 5.00
C Blue Spirulina Powder 0.10
E Preservative eco 1.00
    Total: 100.00

Essential Oil Information

Always ensure you consult the International Fragrance Foundation standards’ library for information on usage percentages and any restrictions on essential oils used in your cosmetic formulations. Here, we link to those relevant to grapefruit and fragrance use in shower gels.

IFRA Standards Libary notice on expressed grapefruit oil

Ifra categories: this document lists IFRA categories for scented products. Shower gels are category 9 (see page 47 of linked document).

Method of Manufacture

Follow our instructions step by step in order to make your own version of our colourful and uplifting grapefruit and blue spirulina shower gel.


  1. Blend Phase A

    Blend all Phase A ingredients together in a beaker or container.
    Blending these ingredients first will give the gums time to disperse in the glycerine while you weigh out the other ingredients. By blending the glycerine and gums, you are aiming for a smooth texture as this will prevent the gum from clumping.

  2. Blend Phase B

    Separately blend all the Phase B ingredients in a beaker or container. Blend all of the surfactants together in one beaker. Adding the essential oil at this stage means that the Caprylyl/Capryl glucoside can solubilise the essential oil. Stir slowly until there are no streaks in the liquid and wait for it to turn translucent.

  3. Blend Phase C

    Separately blend all the Phase C ingredients in a beaker or container. Weigh out your waters and add your Blue spirulina to let it dissolve fully.

  4. Begin assembling your shower gel

    Start by adding your Phase B ingredients to your Phase C blend slowly. Add the surfactants slowly and stir until fully combined. Make sure to stir all of the ingredients together well but do not stir too fast or your gel will begin to foam. Because of the pH of these surfactants, the colour will change to purple as you add them to the blend.

  5. Add Phase A to your overall blend

    Next add the Phase A ingredients to your overall blend. Slowly combine the waters with the gum/glycerine mix bit by bit and stir very slowly.

  6. Wait a moment

    Leave the ingredients to thicken slightly at this point

  7. Check and adjust the pH

    You are aiming for the blend to reach a pH of 5 to 5.5. Adjusting the pH will make the blend blue again and remember that preservative eco will lower the pH slightly. Stir until the blend is completely blue.

  8. Add the preservative

    Add Phase D, the preservative to your blend and stir.

  9. Check pH

    Check and adjust the pH as necessary. We are looking for a pH of 5 in your overall blend.

  10. Bottle and leave for 24 hours

    Transfer the gel to a bottle and leave it for 24 hours for the gel consistency to form completely and for the gel to become clear and bubble free.

Formulation Tips

  • If you have a solubiliser such as Symbiosolv Clear Plus, you can use that in Phase B. If you do, remember to adjust the water to make the formula up to 100 grams. We used Caprylyl/Capryl Glucoside as a surfactant this time as it is great for solubilising small amounts of oils, but the choice is yours.
  • Try to work with a Xanthan gum that’s in a powder form, not the Xanthan that comes in little grains. We use this type of gum because the powder is easier to work with – the little grains take a long time to swell and can create blobs.
  • Using different gums in different ratios can affect the final viscosity. Don’t be put off by this and use it as an opportunity to experiment.
  • Always leave your shower gel formula to rest overnight or 24 hours before making any adjustments as it will take this long for it to settle.
  • Not all ingredients are compatible with each other so you may run into a situation where your gel breaks and you will need to do some research and experiment to find the problem.


Suggested Suppliers

Below is a list of several suppliers who stock some of the ingredients used in our natural organic shower gel formulation. Once you enrol with Formula Botanica, you will receive our comprehensive global supplier list which contains close to 300 suppliers around the world.





What is the difference between a shower gel, body wash and body cream cleanser?

The key difference between a shower gel and body wash lies in the texture and viscosity of the two products. A gel is thicker, and often translucent or semi opaque, while a wash is more like a liquid soap and runnier. A body cream cleanser is an emulsion-based, wash-off cleanser that leaves the skin more moisturised.

What is a surfactant?

A surfactant, or surface-active agent, is a group of cosmetic ingredients that aids foaming, soaping and cleansing. Surfactants cover a wide range of ingredients which includes emulsifiers, solubilisers, dispersants and wetting agents. Surfactants are routinely found in household detergents and in personal care products like liquid soaps, shampoos and shower gels.

What natural surfactants are there?

Common plant-based surfactants used in natural, green comestic formulations include Coco glucoside, Decyl glucoside and Caprylyl/Capryl glucoside which are various derivatives of glucose (sugar/starch) and fatty alcohols from coconut or palm oil.

Where can I learn to formula natural bath and body products?

Join us at Formula Botanica, where tens of thousands of students and followers take our free and paid online courses to learn how to formulate organic skincare and haircare for themselves or to sell.


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How to Make a Natural Shower Gel using Surfactants

Brooke Medhurst is a Tutor at Formula Botanica. Find out more about the Formula Botanica Team.


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